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What are Data Centers and How Do They Operate?

Most modern businesses have to face down infrastructure management in some way, shape, or form. From onsite servers and IT teams to cloud computing solutions, data centers are at the heart of business operations in the 21st century. Data centers consist of critical infrastructure equipment that allows a business to maintain an online presence, maintain efficiency in daily operations, run applications, and process data. The information below offers a more in-depth look at data centers, from basic equipment setups to data center infrastructure management.

What is a Data Center and How Does it Work?

At its core, a data center is a centralized location that houses the computing and network equipment required to collect, store, process, and distribute large amounts of data. Data center facilities are also critical in providing access to the large amounts of data stored there for employees running daily operations, applications, and other processes in a cloud computing environment.

Modern data centers consist of a variety of infrastructure components, including servers and network connectivity equipment, that permit access to the server storage over the Internet. Users, whether using a private data center or a shared data center, access data and programs housed on data center equipment via the Internet to complete daily operations. In a public cloud setting, data centers share computational and storage capabilities across a broad group of users. Private cloud settings, conversely, restrict access to data center architecture to one dedicated user.

What Makes Up a Data Center? The Core Components

Data center design often varies based on cloud providers offering the service and/or the needs of individual enterprise customers. Regardless of individual cases, data center infrastructure typically includes routers, switches, firewalls, storage systems, servers, and application delivery controllers. These components work together to provide access to applications supporting business operations and spread out workloads across a variety of machines to ensure efficient operation. Taken together as a whole, the infrastructure of a data center provides users with:

  • Network infrastructure to connect data center servers (both physical and virtualized), services, storage, and external connectivity to end-users.
  • Storage infrastructure dedicated to storing and managing data users require for daily operations.
  • Servers process, provide memory space, local storage, and network connectivity that drives applications for businesses.

How Do You Maintain a Data Center?

The efficiency of any data center, from a private cloud data center to an enterprise data center, comes down to proper maintenance. This includes the maintenance of the physical infrastructure that makes up the data center, as well as the building and its systems. As more and more businesses turn to colocation facilities for data center infrastructure, it is vital to understand how cloud providers maintain data centers.

Maintenance of data center equipment can generally be broken down into a handful of categories that include regular inspections, continuous testing, predictive maintenance, preventive maintenance, and corrective maintenance. Providers should conduct daily inspections as the heart of their maintenance operations to ensure everything within colocation facilities is functioning properly. This includes the electrical and mechanical distribution systems, as well as power infrastructures such as backup generators that ensure uninterruptable power and cooling systems that prevent servers from overheating.

Other forms of maintenance require daily, weekly, and monthly check-ins. Continuous testing, for example, is done to ensure data center equipment and systems are operating within the proper parameters. Predictive maintenance consists of data analysis that offers foresight on upcoming challenges or potential failures to avoid issues. Preventative maintenance ensures that servers and other data center architecture pieces are replaced on regular intervals to avoid disruptions in the network. Corrective maintenance is a last-ditch option that requires quickly fixing any systems that have slipped through the above maintenance schedules and unexpectedly failed.

Where are the Most Data Centers Located?

While enterprise data centers could be located onsite at some of the world’s largest company, most of the world’s data centers are spread out across all six inhabited continents of the world. When a company accesses cloud data centers, they are likely accessing a variety of systems across a network of data centers spread around the world. Colocation providers such as Amazon and Google have large data centers around the world. Google data centers alone number some 15 in total, with eight in the United States, one in South America, four in Europe, and two in Asia.

Cloud providers spread out data centers to ensure workloads are balanced at all times, but also to ensure energy efficiency at all sites. Data center facilities require a great deal of energy consumption, not only to power all of the data infrastructure, but also for cooling purposes. All of those machines generate a lot of heat, and without proper cooling systems, the facility could suffer one operational failure after another. Colocation providers take on the burden of infrastructure management, building a network architecture that provides energy efficiency, and ensuring that uninterruptable power is offered to the system at all times. Even the smallest blip in power can lead to downtimes that cost end-users thousands of dollars.

Why are Data Centers Important?

Data centers have become a vital component in the successful operation of daily life in the 21st century. Though most people might go through the day without realizing the impact of data centers, these facilities are responsible for everything from power grids, telecommunications, and transportation networks to banks, security systems, entertainment, and public health.

What is Data Center Virtualization?

Data center virtualization consists of the specialized design, development, and deployment of data on virtualization and cloud computing technologies. The goal is to virtualize the physical servers in a colocation provider data center to offer storage, networking, and other infrastructure devices to end-users. Data center virtualization typically includes a broad range of tools and technologies that enable data center operations and services to operate on virtualization layer technology.

Another main goal of data center virtualization is to lower operational costs for end-users. Because multiple users can access virtualized data centers on the same physical infrastructure, while running separate applications, each individual end-user can optimize IT resource utilization and reduce capital and operational costs for a data center.

Are There Different Tiers of Data Centers?

There are, generally speaking, four accepted tiers of data centers. The numeric tiers assigned to these data centers reflect built-in redundancies in both the infrastructure systems and the power and cooling systems. These tiers are commonly assigned the following values and capabilities:

  • Tier 1: Typically used by small businesses, a Tier 1 data center offers no guaranteed built-in redundancies to ensure optimal uptime and has an average 28.8 hours of downtime per year
  • Tier 2: The primary difference between a Tier 1 and Tier 2 data center is the introduction of certain redundancies by the colocation provider. Partial redundancies are often built in to focus on ensuring power and cooling remain online to support operations. Annual downtime is lower at around 22 hours per year.
  • Tier 3: A Tier 3 data center goes beyond the redundancies of a Tier 2 center to ensure greater update and protection against power and cooling issues. There are no more than 1.6 hours of downtime annually in a Tier 3 data center. Tier 3 data centers use N+1 fault tolerance to provide up to 72 hours of power outage protection.
  • Tier 4: A Tier 4 data center is the primary choice of enterprise users as it offers 99.995% uptime per year and just 26.3 minutes of downtime annually. Additionally, Tier 4 data centers have 2n+1 redundant infrastructure and 96-hour power outage protection.

Colocation data center providers like Google focus primarily on building and maintaining Tier 4 data centers. This is not only for the cloud users of Google data centers, but also for the operation of its own applications such as Google Docs and Gmail. Reliability is everything and Tier 4 data centers offer targeted services that appeal to enterprise users, in particular.

What is SSAE 18?

SSAE 18 is the latest auditing standard for service organizations and it stands for Statement on Standards for Attestation Engagements. In short, SSAE is used to regulate the manner in which companies conduct business. More specifically, it applies to how companies report on compliance controls and it includes reports known as SOC 1, SOC 2, and SOC 3. SOC 1 is a control report for service organizations and pertains to internal control over financial reports. SOC 2 evaluates business information systems that relate to security, availability, processing integrity, confidentiality, and privacy. SOC 3 is used primarily as marketing material to showcase compliance.

Why are Data Centers Important to Business?

As virtualization and digitalization continue in the 21st century, data centers have become a top priority for businesses. Data centers are not just seen as an external facility for the storage of information and operation models, but rather, a key to the very daily functions of a business.

How Much Geographic Diversity is Required?

Geographic diversity in the architecture and deployment of data centers is critical when it comes to disaster recovery. Colocation providers need to have a strong disaster recovery plan in place, and such a plan is often built on geographic diversity. For example, this ensures that a fire in one location within a country or a natural disaster that impacts an entire region does not bring down an entire system. In such cases, workloads can be spread out across data centers located around the world far from the clutches of one fire or a regional disaster such as a hurricane. This is why, for example, Google data centers are located four of the six inhabited continents of the world.

In general, data centers don’t have to be spread across multiple continents. The minimum ideal data center geographic diversity would be enough of a physical spread between primary and secondary sites. For example, within the United States, it would be ideal to primary and secondary sites located across distances where a hurricane that strikes the Gulf Coast doesn’t hit both primary and secondary data centers.

What Kind of Physical Security is Required?

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Network and data security are crucial to cloud services provided by a data center, but there is also a need for physical security within data center locations. Physical security in a data center includes four basic practices:

  • Access management: systems must be in place to control who can go where and when.
  • Layered security: successful physical security requires a depth of layers that include physical access management, perimeter security, process management, and online access controls.
  • Proper training: employees within a data center must clearly understand individual responsibilities as it pertains to the physical security measures of a data center.
  • Constant testing: just as the maintenance of data center infrastructure requires testing, so too do physical security measures. Regular testing of physical security ensures that gaps in the system are caught before being exploited.

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